Coastal Division preview: Is it Virginia’s turn?

The Coastal Division side has been the inferior side of the ACC this decade but it has been the more interesting side.

While the Atlantic Division has been dominated by one team (Clemson and Florida State have taken turns), there’s a reason the hashtag “Coastal Chaos” exists on Twitter.

Six different teams have won the Coastal title in the past six years. Pittsburgh took its surprising turn last year, with Miami in 2017, Virginia Tech in 2016, North Carolina in 2015, Georgia Tech in 2014 and Duke in 2013.

The only team left is Virginia. There’s a good chance the Wahoos, coming off of an 8-5 season under fourth-year coach Bronco Mendenhall, will be the preseason choice in Charlotte this week at the ACC kickoff.

There’s a lot to like about the Hoos, who have the best quarterback in the division in Bryce Perkins. But one thing the collective ACC media is not very good at is predicting the Coastal winner (full disclosure: I picked Miami last year).

The preseason choice in the Coastal has won it once (Miami in 2017) in the past six years. The problem is Miami has been the consensus choice four of the past six years and only delivered the one time.

So, naturally, I’m going to pick Miami in the year that Virginia is the popular choice. Maybe the reverse mojo will work for the Hurricanes and first-year coach Manny Diaz.

On to the predicted order of finish:

Miami running back DeeJay Dallas (13) stretches for a first down at the 4-yard-line in front of Pittsburgh defensive back Jazzee Stocker, left, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami won 24-3. Lynne Sladky AP

T1. Miami

Coach: Manny Diaz, first season

2018: 7-6, 4-4 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (66), defense (14)

Key games: Virginia (Oct. 11), at Florida State (Nov. 2)

They’re gone: RB Travis Homer, DE Joe Jackson

They’re back: RB DeeJay Dallas, LB Shaquille Quarterman

So Miami started the 2018 season ranked No. 8 in the country after a 10-3 finish in 2017 and its first division title. It certainly looked, and felt, like “The U” was back in Mark Richt’s third season.

But the quarterback play was so bad, starting with a disastrous loss to LSU to open the season, that the Canes stumbled out of the top 25 completely and finished with a losing record (6-7).

Richt decided to retire rather than tweak his coaching staff. So defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who had left for Temple, decided to come back to the Canes.

Diaz, a longtime defensive assistant in the ACC and SEC, brought in a bunch of transfers, namely quarterback Tate Martell from Ohio State.

If Martell is half as good as his recruiting profile suggests (which hasn’t always been the case for Miami), then Diaz will have the Canes back on top of the division.

Miami still has the most talent in the division, even after losing five NFL draft picks. The defense, led by the linebackers, will be the best in the division. The challenge is handling the early schedule, which is favorable once they get to ACC play with both Virginia and Virginia Tech coming to south Florida.

Last year’s team got smushed by an SEC team (LSU) in the opener and never really recovered. This year’s team opens with an SEC team (Florida). How it handles a potential early setback, especially with so many new parts on offense, will be the key to Diaz’s debut season.

Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins (3) runs while Duke defensive tackle Trevon McSwain (95) reaches for the tackle during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. Virginia won 28-14. Gerry Broome AP

T1. Virginia

Coach: Bronco Mendenhall, fourth season 16-22 (115-65 overall)

2018: 8-5, 4-4 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (62), defense (31)

Key games: at Miami (Oct. 11), Virginia Tech (Nov. 29)

They’re gone: WR Olamide Zaccheaus, RB Jordan Ellis

They’re back: QB Bryce Perkins, CB Bryce Hall

Virginia, under Bronco Mendenhall, is trending up. The Hoos went from 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season to 6-7 in 2017 and 8-5 last season.

There’s no reason to think that trend can’t continue in Year 4. Bryce Perkins, in what is typically a difficult adjustment from junior college, accounted for 34 touchdowns last season. That was more than anyone else in the ACC. He will only be more effective, and comfortable, in his second season as the starter.

The concern for the Wahoos, other than having to face Miami on the road, is that Perkins was a better runner than passer last year. There were times when they were basically running a modernized version of the single wing. That doesn’t mean Perkins can’t improve as a passer, just that he has to for Virginia to take the next step.

Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (who had 93 catches) will be missed, as will safety Juan Thornill, but the table is set for Virginia to take its turn in the spotlight.

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Funente directs his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Blacksburg, Va., Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. Steve Helber AP

T3. Virginia Tech

Coach: Justin Fuente, fourth season 25-15 (51-38 overall)

2018: 6-7, 4-4 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (41), defense (77)

Key games: at Miami (Oct. 5), at Virginia (Nov. 29)

They’re gone: DT Ricky Walker, RB Steven Peoples

They’re back: QB Ryan Willis, WR Damon Hazelton

Virginia Tech was bad on defense last year. Like the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.

Bud Foster has been there for 33 years and that had never been the case under the defensive coordinator’s watch.

The Georgia Tech debacle (465 rushing yards allowed in a 49-28 loss), in front of a national Thursday night audience, was bad but giving up 90 points to Pittsburgh and Miami, in subsequent outings, was worse.

With any semblance of defense, the Hokies would have won the division last year. Alas, Foster has the task of taking basically the same group, and trying to make it better or at least competent.

Ryan Willis, a Kansas transfer, took over for Josh Jackson after the third game, and was perfectly fine with 2,716 passing yards and 24 touchdowns.

Someone, anyone, needs to emerge at running back, but Greensboro’s Tre Turner is a home-run hitter at receiver and Ball State transfer Damon Hazelton made a smooth transition from the MAC.

They won’t quite get back to where they were in Justin Fuente’s first two seasons but the Hokies will bounce back to the eight-win range.

Duke running back Deon Jackson (25) heads into the end zone during a game against Wake Forest at Wallace Wade Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 in Durham, N.C. News & Observer file photo

T3. Duke

Coach: David Cutcliffe, 12th season 67-72 (111-101 overall)

2018: 8-5, 3-5 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (52), defense (46)

Key games: Pittsburgh (Oct. 5), at UNC (Oct. 26)

They’re gone: QB Daniel Jones, LB Joe Giles-Harris

They’re back: RB Deon Jackson, CB Mark Gilbert

David Cutcliffe did some of his best work last season. That covers a lot of ground but given the injures he had to navigate (and the schedule), eight wins was the definition of the getting the most out of the least.

He’ll have to work some more magic this season, with quarterback Daniel Jones off to the NFL, but that’s just kind of what Cutcliffe does. It’s not flashy but it’s effective.

Running back Deon Jackson (847 yards) is in for a big year with four starters back on the line. Quentin Harris filled in capably while Jones was out with a collarbone injury and will be fine as the full-time quarterback.

The defense wasn’t great but has eight starters back, including standout cornerback Mark Gilbert (who missed all but two games with a hip injury).

The schedule is a bear (with nonconference dates with Alabama and Notre Dame) but Cutcliffe will have the Devils near .500 in the league and back in a bowl game for the seventh time in eight years.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown talks with Jordan Tucker (74) following the Tar Heels’ spring football game on Saturday, April 13, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett


Coach: Mack Brown, first season, went 69-46-1 at UNC from 1988-97 (244-122-1 overall)

2018: 2-9, 1-7 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (58), defense (95)

Key games: Duke (Oct. 26), at N.C. State (Nov. 30)

They’re gone: WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams, DE Malik Carney

They’re back: S Myles Dorn, WR Dazz Newsome

Your “surprise” team.

The Tar Heels have won a total of five games over the past two years, so this is a low bar to clear but Mack Brown Version 2.0 will have a relatively successful relaunch.

UNC had a bad record last year (2-9) but wasn’t a bad team. It lost by three points to Virginia Tech, three at Syracuse (in overtime), by a touchdown to Duke and by six points to N.C. State (in overtime).

That was with a mountain of injuries and very little stability or consistency at quarterback.

Don’t be surprised if the defense, under new coordinator Jay Bateman (who worked football miracles at Army), significantly improves.

The schedule does Brown no favors, especially early. He will have to get the team, which has been beset by injuries for the past three years, through September in one piece. The schedule opens up after the visit from Clemson on Sept. 28.

Assuming Brown can find the right quarterback — and Brown, a hall-of-fame coach with a national title on his resume, has a commendable track record in many things but settling on one quarterback (at least not one named Vince Young) is not one of them — then the Tar Heels will win six or seven games and get back to a bowl game.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) looks to pass against Clemson in the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. Mike McCarn AP

6. Pittsburgh

Coach: Pat Narduzzi, fifth season (28-24 overall)

2018: 7-7, 6-2 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (71), defense (53)

Key games: at Duke (Oct. 5), Miami (Oct. 26)

They’re gone: RB Qadree Ollison, RB Darrin Hall

They’re back: QB Kenny Pickett, CB Dane Jackson

The Panthers ran the ball effectively (227.9 yards per game), and defended well enough during a four-game stretch from the end of October to the middle of November, to win the Coastal Division title last year.

Both of their 1,000-yard rushers (Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall) are gone and four of the starting offensive linemen are gone. Hence, the pick here for the Panthers to drop from the top of the standings.

Pat Narduzzi’s team will still be hard-nosed on defense and slog it out on offense but they are unlikely to win as many coin-toss games as they did a year ago.

Good for them for taking advantage of their opportunity but they’ll have to hang their hat on that until the next chance comes along next decade.

In this Oct. 5, 2018, file photo, Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver (8) tries to fend off Louisville linebacker Nick Okeke (97) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky. Timothy D. Easley AP

7. Georgia Tech

Coach: Geoff Collins, first season (15-10 overall)

2018: 7-6, 5-3 ACC

S&P+ rankings: offense (40), defense (100)

Key games: UNC (Oct. 5), Pittsburgh (Nov. 2)

They’re gone: QB TaQuon Marshall, DE Anree Saint-Amour

They’re back: QB Tobias Oliver, P Pressley Harvin

This is quite a project for Geoff Collins, who takes over for Paul Johnson and has to transition the program from an option offense.

Collins was resourceful at Temple, where he went 15-10 in two seasons, and had a solid track record as a defensive coordinator at Mississippi State and Florida. He will need every trick in the book to salvage respectability out of his debut season.

The offensive line was not good last year and has to learn a new scheme. The skill players probably won’t have that big of a transition to make — football is still football — but it’s definitely going to be different for a program whose leading receiver had 15 catches last year.

Defensively, the Jackets need an overhaul and that will probably be where Collins can make the most hay in Year 1. The Jackets ranked No. 116 in the FBS in sacks last year.

Maybe Collins can turn water into Gatorade but this feels like a long-range fix.

Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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